If the mind, while imagining non-existent things as present to it, is at the same time conscious that they do not really exist, this power of imagination must be set down to the efficacy of its nature, and not to a fault, especially if this faculty of imagination depend solely on its own nature–that is if this faculty of imagination be free.
(Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, Prop. 17,https://www.msu.org/e&r/content_e&r/texts/spinoza/ethics_part2.html#text18)
Before how to resist
before how to act
we must deal today with how to think? This journal rightly asks that old question (or is it a statement?), What is to be Done? but can we really answer it today? After all, we cannot take for granted the very things trade unions, class solidarity, political possibility that Lenin built his argument upon. Instead, what we may require of ourselves is to imagine the non-existent things as present’ in the little space for the freedom of the imagination that is still available to us.
The default victory of capitalism, a tragedy waiting to happen for 30 years at least, threw class-consciousness to the wolves. Historical determinism and dialectical materialism happened in topsy-turvy fashion. The past became the future. Except we already knew, even before 1989, that the future we had imagined was already locked into the mass labour experience of factory work and trade union organisation, while the present looked a lot more like the unchecked exploitation of our own dreams of internationalism and non-alienated labour that we had long since relegated to a utopian never land of imaginary world revolution. In the here-and-now of global capital, solidarity melted into air and free intellectual labour came to be the paradigm of the new Empire of Flows and Control.
Meanwhile, any steps towards real social equality and emancipation were apparently shown to not really exist’ or to lead, as deterministically as Marxism ever was, to the Gulag and the secret state. Apparently (again it’s all about appearance), there weren’t many places left to turn (or to turn left) anymore, and the space for thinking, let alone acting politically, seemed (and seems) very narrow indeed. Rapidly, the most welcoming resting places for critical thought became those that offered the happiness of idly accepting the eager opportunities of the new capital, while always dreaming of the next big scale transformative utopia’ to come whiling away a few ultra-compromised hours in Utopia Station waiting for a train that never arrives, to put it in contemporary terms. It is a sad picture indeed – like an Edward Hopper bar full of lost, alienated revolutionaries.
So, what is left of resistance when there is no organisation of professional revolutionaries (VI Lenin, What is to be Done?, 1902) possible in a capitalist system that subsumes all social activity into itself? We’ve learnt, from Negri and others, that there is no outside, no externalities from which to gain purchase on a system that invades our own bodies. At the time of biopolitics and instant postmodern subsumption, where is resistant to be placed and when is it to be enacted?
As ever, the question is much easier to formulate than the answer though let us understand the fact that for those who see the contradictions of capitalism in the wars it wages and the third world labour it employs, to have broad agreement that this is the question is an advance for emancipatory desire. The problem is that, however strongly desired, there is no existing political force or structure that could yet be imagined to articulate an answer. Or I cannot see one even on the horizon.
Surely this absence is not only a failure of the current political parties isn’t it more likely to be a systemic crisis, a formal problem with the nature of representative politics that we call western democracy, rather than with the individuals who make up our present political field? And isn’t that connected to the shared understanding that there is no outside anymore from which to build resistance, or even discourse, in the old, democratic ways. Even more so when politics is organised almost exclusively in terms of nation states that are themselves thrown into crisis by the new Imperial system?
At the same time as western democracies seem incapable of renewing themselves, the big scale, one size fits all utopian revolutionary programme of the last century is clearly over. Perhaps it could only ever have been an academic exercise if it was to remain life affirming rather than life threatening. Because the experience of the last century tells us that from almost the second day of the revolution, the forces of revolutionary conservatism’ take hold – the achievements of the first day have to be defended and further steps become challenges to the revolution itself. The revolutionary council dedicates itself to defending the gains of the revolution per se, without stopping to ask what those gains really represent. Hollowed proclamations replace real discourse and attempts at progressive reform become counter-revolutionary threats to be silenced. Just as current capitalism, there is no outside after revolution from which to build intelligent resistance. Politics under whichever system becomes impossible, and contemporary pleas for utopia, in the art world as elsewhere, are little more than conscious-easing platitudes for Empire affirming strategies.
Instead of looking at the political realm, for me and I think for others, some of the best responses to the concrete analysis of concrete conditions (to quote Lenin again) have been from certain artists. There are those who have played with a creative, collective nostalgia (eg Manfred Pernice, Mladen Stilinovic, Yiso Bahc a.o), those who have exploited the palpable gaps between different parts of the planet to suggest our way is not the only way (eg Marjetica Potrc, Superflex, Chen Zhen a.o.), those who have invested in the difference only a deep local engagement can reveal (e.g. Dan Peterman, Oda Projesi, Maria Eichhorn a.o.) and others who provide a crucial imaginative spy hole through which to view ourselves, our human society and its values (eg Isa Genzken, Paul McCarthy, Pavel Althamer a.o.) They tell us how material(ism) its systems, architecture, mindsets, communities – are put together and in analysing this material make it possible for us all to imagine it otherwise.
Yet, inevitably, these artists, and others that could be added, only provide a part of the answer to that question about the time, place and nature of resistance. As artists who produce artworks they necessarily keep themselves clear of manifestoes, homilies or instructions. It is their ambiguity, and the consequent responsibility on the viewer to sort out what it might mean, that make their work function at all as art. What they tell us in the end is the horrible, depressing, unconscionable truth is that it is we (the collective of individuals, the multitude, the intellectual, immaterial labourers) who must try to shape the new forms of resistance or even ask the question why? Art itself cannot, current politics cannot, there is no Leninist vanguard of professionals to turn to anymore, because we are all on the inside and have to turn up the heat on ourselves as much as on our enemies. To do this we have one imperious, uncontrollable tool our imagination of non-existent things. We have to imagine our own resistances through the one product of humanity that privileges imagination art. Art (of a certain kind) becomes the tool with which to imagine, and imagination becomes the tool to resist or to picture a different state of the world and try to create it, which amounts to resistance at a time when the intellectual servants of Empire proclaim the end of history.
Alain Badiou says ” emancipatory politics always consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible .” (AB, Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil, Verso, London, 2001) He is right, of course, but that impossibility that is made to seem possible can only come about through an act of free imagination and, as Spinoza teaches us, the truly free imagination is an act of deliberate self-deception. So, imagination, which is the thing upon which art has the greatest purchase, is finally delusional. To imagine resistance, which is what we now require, is to deceive ourselves knowingly – to deny our knowledge of the totality of the imperial system in favour of the benefits of imaginative freedom. And the greatest benefit of all is that in that delusion, resistance again becomes possible and we can, in classic Matrix vein, fight the monsters even when they are inside our heads. Only art can do this today, it seems to me, because only art has the permission to imagine without ridicule. For all Spinoza’s materialist doubts, imagination is a real power. If we modify Spinoza’s opening words with a few of Negri’s from 1997, we start to sketch out how that power may be realized.
in all probability, the virtual is now more powerful than the actual, and the conceptual possible more real than the real. The brain has surpassed the world and, in the antagonistic fashion, is making of it another. One world, one time’ (Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution , Continuum, London, 2003)
The challenge, issued equally to artists as constructors and viewers as reconstructors, is to choose to imagine resistance, to seek to depict it and to make use of those images in our lives – in our intimate, specific, personal and public behaviours and choices. The one world, one time that Negri mentions could be (my reading) the site and moment for that kind of necessarily delusional resistance on the small scale. The politics in the mass media and in the current democratic forums won’t help us get there. Probably they will be needed some day, if only to announce their abolition, but not now. It is the power of the imagination and art’s unique purchase on how it may operate in each one of us that can do it. Imagine resistance and watch what happens.